Five years ago, Ceres police Sgt. Howard Stevenson was nearing the end of his shift when he stopped home to kiss his wife and grab a snack. He would be back in an hour, he said, to help pluck the ducks he had bagged with his father before returning from vacation earlier that day.
Kathy Stevenson waved goodbye to the man wearing badge No. 143 — shorthand for "I love you" in today's texting — then poured a glass of red wine for him to enjoy upon his return.
Twenty minutes later, he was dead. A brazen ambush by an AWOL Marine with alleged gang ties and superior firepower provoked shock and horror in Ceres, throughout California and beyond.
High-powered bullets also felled Stevenson's friend and fellow officer, Sam Ryno, with career-ending injuries.
The tragic violence fueled headlines and television coverage for months. People speculated that the 19-year-old combat-weary Iraq war veteran, high on cocaine, had snapped and committed suicide-by-cop in a crazy gunbattle caught on a liquor store's surveillance camera.
Further investigation has suggested the shooter, Andres Raya, was hoping for upward gang mobility.
Fallout from the shootout includes equipment upgrades for officers, strategy changes, a citywide tax increase for public safety, a park named for Ryno, now 54, and a rural riverfront grove named for Stevenson.
The shootout also steeled another young man's determination to someday pick up where his father left off. Bryce Stevenson is scheduled to begin police academy training next week.
Five years ago, public safety units came from all over to pay respect at the city's first and only memorial service for a policeman killed in the line of duty. Colleagues said Howard Stevenson, 39, was quiet, an avid outdoorsman of solid moral character. He had spent half his life on the force.
Stevenson's stunned survivors kept mostly silent.
"I couldn't think, let alone talk," Kathy Stevenson, now 45, told The Bee in the family's first substantial interview coinciding with the shooting's five-year anniversary. She was joined by her children, Bryce, 23, and Mikaela, 18.
The family asked that their faces not be shown because the threat of gang violence remains a reality, even five years later. Graffiti occasionally memorializes the killer of Howard Stevenson, police say. Taggers have defiled the officer's headstone and the grove established in his memory.
"We clean it up real quick and don't let it bother us," Kathy Stevenson said.
"He was just a part of what law enforcement is," Bryce Stevenson said. "It was not anything personal."
Bryce Stevenson was 18 and expected to begin Modesto Junior College the next day when his father stopped for his snack. The young man had graduated from Ceres High School a few months before, which was a year behind the killer, whom he never met.
That night five years ago, Bryce Stevenson went to a friend's house and a police scanner chirped about officers and shots in a liquor store parking lot, only a couple of blocks from the friend's house.
Bryce heard a helicopter and returned home before his father's long-faced buddies drove up.
"I already knew," he said. "I had a feeling."
Many officers never discharge their weapons outside the firing range. But Howard Stevenson knew what it felt like to draw and fire.
Seven years before, Stevenson and a rookie he trained confronted a burglary suspect who tripped while trying to flee. Stevenson ordered him to show his hands. When the man turned with a pistol, the officers opened fire. Stevenson showed his son a newspaper article, which omitted the officers' names, and explained what had happened. Reporters never made the connection, even after Stevenson was gunned down by Raya's SKS assault rifle. But the family had sometimes reflected on the danger inherent in police work.
"I never assumed he would ever be killed," his widow said, "because he won the first time. The next time, he was just outgunned."
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